IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Irrelevance of Europe (and Multilateralism)

Coming from Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, this opinion piece ("Why Europe No Longer Matters") registers a dramatic shift in the larger orientations of American foreign policy. Haass does not want to end NATO, but he considers Europe to be increasingly irrelevant to world affairs. In effect, Haass recommends an "Asia-first" as against a "Europe-first" policy, something that would have been unthinkable in the Council a generation ago.
Ironically, Europe’s own notable successes are an important reason that transatlantic ties will matter less in the future. The current euro zone financial crisis should not obscure the historic accomplishment that was the building of an integrated Europe over the past half-century. The continent is largely whole and free and stable. Europe, the principal arena of much 20th-century geopolitical competition, will be spared such a role in the new century — and this is a good thing.

The contrast with Asia could hardly be more dramatic. Asia is increasingly the center of gravity of the world economy; the historic question is whether this dynamism can be managed peacefully. The major powers of Europe — Germany, France and Great Britain — have reconciled, and the regional arrangements there are broad and deep. In Asia, however, China, Japan, India, Vietnam, the two Koreas, Indonesia and others eye one another warily. Regional pacts and arrangements, especially in the political and security realms, are thin. Political and economic competition is unavoidable; military conflict cannot be ruled out. Europeans will play a modest role, at best, in influencing these developments.
If Asia, with its dynamism and power struggles, in some ways resembles the Europe of 100 years ago, the Middle East is more reminiscent of the Europe of several centuries before: a patchwork of top-heavy monarchies, internal turbulence, unresolved conflicts, and nationalities that cross and contest boundaries. Europe’s ability to influence the course of this region, too, will be sharply limited.
Political and demographic changes within Europe, as well as the United States, also ensure that the transatlantic alliance will lose prominence. In Europe, the E.U. project still consumes the attention of many, but for others, especially those in southern Europe facing unsustainable fiscal shortfalls, domestic economic turmoil takes precedence. No doubt, Europe’s security challenges are geographically, politically and psychologically less immediate to the population than its economic ones. Mounting financial problems and the imperative to cut deficits are sure to limit what Europeans can do militarily beyond their continent.
Moreover, intimate ties across the Atlantic were forged at a time when American political and economic power was largely in the hands of Northeastern elites, many of whom traced their ancestry to Europe and who were most interested in developments there. Today’s United States — featuring the rise of the South and the West, along with an increasing percentage of Americans who trace their roots to Africa, Latin America or Asia — could hardly be more different. American and European preferences will increasingly diverge as a result.
Finally, the very nature of international relations has also undergone a transformation. Alliances, whether NATO during the Cold War or the U.S.-South Korean partnership now, do best in settings that are highly inflexible and predictable, where foes and friends are easily identified, potential battlefields are obvious, and contingencies can be anticipated.
Almost none of this is true in our current historical moment. Threats are many and diffuse. Relationships seem situational, increasingly dependent on evolving and unpredictable circumstances. Countries can be friends, foes or both, depending on the day of the week — just look at the United States and Pakistan. Alliances tend to require shared assessments and explicit obligations; they are much more difficult to operate when worldviews diverge and commitments are discretionary. But as the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya all demonstrate, this is precisely the world we inhabit.
For the United States, the conclusions are simple. First, no amount of harping on what European governments are failing to do will push them toward what some in Washington want them to do. They have changed. We have changed. The world has changed.
Second, NATO as a whole will count for much less. Instead, the United States will need to maintain or build bilateral relations with those few countries in Europe willing and able to act in the world, including with military force.
Third, other allies are likely to become more relevant partners in the regions that present the greatest potential challenges. In Asia, this might mean Australia, India, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam, especially if U.S.-China relations were to deteriorate; in the greater Middle East, it could again be India in addition to Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and others.
None of this justifies a call for NATO’s abolition. The alliance still includes members whose forces help police parts of Europe and who could contribute to stability in the Middle East. But it is no less true that the era in which Europe and transatlantic relations dominated U.S. foreign policy is over. The answer for Americans is not to browbeat Europeans for this, but to accept it and adjust to it.
There is much acute analysis in this piece--the contrast with Europe 100 years ago (today's Asia) and "several centuries" ago (today's Middle East) is especially instructive. Two larger comments:

Haass' essay demonstrates (albeit indirectly) that multilateralism, as a operative force in American foreign policy, is a  figment of the imagination. The relationship with Europe has been the core of whatever impulse toward multilateralism existed in our approach to the world. If it's on life support even at the CFR, it doesn't have a pulse elsewhere. Haass has been singing the "multilaterlaism a la carte" line for 20 years, but never with such visible contempt for the democratic partnership with NATO. In effect, we are to be the leader of the world's democracies, but shouldn't bother consulting with Europe's 27 democracies--unless of course they can make a contribution to our military misadventures (as Britain and France kindasorta now do).

Second, if Europe is irrelevant, it is difficult to see why the United States should be relevant. After all, we share a great many of Europe's social and economic problems, with just as much debt and even more inequality. Yes, we have a centralized state and an aggrandizing military establishment that cannot go a year without being used in at least five different countries. But that adds as much to the real health of the country, to paraphrase Jefferson, as sores do to the strength of a human body.